Some people are concerned about the dangers of Genetically Modified (GM) fish, while others are blissfully unaware of what is going on in the field of genetics and animal breeding. In this article, I'll attempt to answer one simple question: If left to play out to its natural outcome, what consequences could government-sanctioned production of GM fish entail?
What is the motivation for creating genetically modified organisms?
The official public relations line is "to reduce the threat of starvation by creating "super" plants and animals that will grow better, faster and bigger, thus providing enough food for growing populations." This noble aspiration makes it easy for people to get on the bandwagon, but the sad reality is that GM food manufacturers are only interested in making money. They aim to corner the market by creating consumer dependency on the patented products they own. (Fish that are not genetically modified can't be patented.) Just as Monsanto is engineering patented self-terminating seeds that require farmers to buy new seeds for each harvest instead of using seeds from previous crops, GM fish manufacturers are producing fish that cannot reproduce among themselves.
Critics of these methods are concerned that GM fish would escape into wild fish population and reproduce with the wild fish, leading to species extinction. Disease and ecosystem disruption is already a huge problem with fish farming. Fish pens are frequently damaged by storms and the farmed fish introduced to the open waters can often outnumber wild species.
The genetic modification industry is still in its infancy and the ramifications of GM products are widely unknown. It could take a generation or two before the offspring of the consumers of these foods manifest the genetic corruption. However, there are a few documented studies that have shown the effects of GM food consumption in mice and humans.
Because mice produce offspring rapidly, it is easy to see the impact of their diet in the second or third generation. Mice born from parents fed GM products were smaller, sicker and sterile in some cases. French scientists conducted studies on mice using three varieties of GM corn (NK603, MON810 and MON863). NK 603 is Roundup (pesticide) tolerant while the MON810 and MON863 corn are modified to create BT Toxins. The scientists found that the organs affected were the kidney, liver, heart, adrenal glands, spleen and haematopoietic system.1 This impact on mammalian health gives us some idea of the potential for marine life health effects. It is quite possible that similar effects could play out from GM fish consumption. Could sharks or any other natural predators that feed on GM salmon become sickly, develop issues with their internal organs or become sterile by the next generation?
In a New Zealand report, Professor of Genetics and Molecular biology at Canterbury University, Jack Heinemann, stated, "The cumulative strength of the positive detections reviewed... leave me in no reasonable uncertainty that GM plant material can transfer to animals exposed to GM feed in their diets or environment, and that there can be a residual difference in animals or animal-products as a result of exposure to GM feed... " Professor Heinemann was engaged to look into the possibility of whether a meat producer can claim their chicken is truly GMO free if the hens are fed a mixture containing GM feed.
The implications of Heinemann's findings on our GM fish discussion is that a salmon predator like a shark or other big fish, or even a human being, can be affected by the transfer of cellular material.
Additionally, one major consideration that ethical, conscious human beings must consider is the possible negative impact of GM salmon on other marine wild life. Even though the GM salmon manufacturer claims that those fish will be raised in land-locked breeding apparatus, who can say if those fish will not at some point find a way into the oceans, especially from fisheries that are non-compliant with the guidelines. The live GM salmon may become predators of natural non-GM salmon.
Suppose no GM fish escaped into the wild and they were processed as normal salmon are processed today. What about the fish waste products like the heads, fins, guts, bones, etc. from traditional fish processing?
Would these GM fish parts be incinerated or simply added to feed for other fish, livestock or pet food? Or would the waste simply be dumped back into the ocean?
Surely the genetic material in those fish parts, if eaten by other sea creatures or land creatures, can pose contamination health risks. It's important to remember that even if regulation stipulated incineration, regulations are seldom enforced, and many corners are cut for profits.
GM fish waste fed to livestock would be introduced to the food supply of omnivores who don't even eat GM fish, or who do not eat fish at all.
The second major consideration is the impact of GM fish on mammalian health, including human health. In September 2010, the American FDA approved GM salmon as "safe" for human consumption,2 but I am not convinced this approval was not a political decision rather than a science-based one. The current evidence falls short of any real assurance of the safety of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in the food supply. The human health risk far outweighs any public relations line about feeding a hungry world.
Health conscious consumers must be aware of the potential for GMO contamination from multiple sources?-?not just GM salmon, but shark fin, other fish, and the many GM monocropped foods. Mandatory labelling of all GM foods, including salmon, is the only way to ensure the public's freedom to choose.
A plant-based, whole food, organic, local diet is still the better way of eating in order to reduce health risks associated with meats and with GM-contaminated meats. I'm part of a local Toronto group recently formed to raise awareness about GMOs.